The promotion achieving game reflected Gillingham’s season, getting their noses in front before successfully shutting up shop to achieve their 9th 1-0 victory of the season and their 19th clean sheet. The Gills have dominated League Two and, aside from two brief spells early in 2013, have led the way since August, their success based on a solid, organised defence, and an exceptional away record.
Manager Martin Allen achieved the first promotion of a managerial career that has seen him typecast as an eccentric escapologist. With the basis of a decent team left behind by Andy Hessenthaler, following successive injury hit 8th placed finishes, and additional money from the sale of goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga to Southampton, and clauses in the transfers of Matt Jarvis and Ryan Bertrand to Wolves and Chelsea respectively, Allen was faced with a squad that needed tweaking, rather than a complete rebuild.
This tweaking took the form of an organised defence. The 2011/2012 season has seen the Gills involved in 29 matches with 3 or more goals, including a 5-4 victory over Hereford, and four different games that ended 4-3. In stark contrast, this season has seen 16 1-0 or 2-1 Gillingham victories, and only 34 goals conceded so far. Adam Barrett, Stuart Nelson and Leon Legge have all been bought in on free transfers to complement existing full backs Matt Fish and Joe Martin, and a midfield anchorman has been deployed in front of them for further protection. The whole squad have played their part in a well organised team, who know how to win ugly. Allen has benefitted from a higher budget for his staff, allowing him to bring in fitness coaching to prevent the kind of injury crises that weakened Hessenthaler’s teams.
Unusually for Gillingham, this season’s team has shown a steel that has seen them lead the table for most of the season, and break the club record with 11 away wins. This came only two seasons after the end of a miserable run that saw them go 35 away games without a win. The men from Kent have also stood up to the pressure of being League leaders. Last season’s champions Swindon only led for the last 16 matches, taking over from a Crawley side who threatened to drop out of the automatic spots, whilst Port Vale cracked during their brief reign at the top, going on a run of 1 win in 8 after taking top spot in February.
Gillingham had their own wobble, with their home form suffering at the turn of the year. Home defeats to Barnet, Oxford and Wycombe coincided with a January exodus of midfielders, as Jack Payne, Danny Jackman and Lewis Montrose all left. However, once new arrivals Steven Gregory and Anton Robinson had settled into the midfield the Gills recovered, and stood nine games unbeaten before Saturdays defeat at Cheltenham.
Despite their domination of League 2 and his public confidence in his squad to cope with the step up, Allen will be aware of the need to add to his squad if they are to cope with the step up that claims the most first season relegations in the Football League. Little secret has been made of his desire to add to the striking options, with Allen thwarted with rumoured big money bids for Dwight Gayle and Stuart Beavon last summer, and the loan spell of Cody McDonald cut short by Coventry. The current team may find it harder in a higher division to get the lead that they so enjoy defending, putting more pressure on themselves not to concede. During their dip in home form around the turn of the year, a failure to score, and subsequent goal-chasing substitutions led to late breakaway defeats against Wycombe and Oxford, whilst they couldn’t find the goals to avoid defeat to Barnet, and needed an 85th minute McDonald equaliser to salvage a point against York. Danny Kedwell has led the scoring charts with 15, followed by veteran Deon Burton with 12. A striker to play alongside one of Kedwell and Burton is likely to be sought, with Burton approaching 37 years old, and Kedwell more adept at holding up play and bringing his team mates into play.
A central midfield partner for Gregory will also need to be found. Charlie Lee has struggled to make the position his own, but has the quality and experience to step up to it, whilst the prospects of Robinson making his move permanent are now doubtful due to a cruciate ligament injury. Allen may also look at recruiting another wide midfielder to play opposite Chris Whelpdale in his 4-1-3-2 formation, with the jury still out on how suited Myles Weston is to a starting position in the narrow midfield Allen favours.
Chairman Paul Scally has already spoken of his desire to progress up the leagues, optimistically talking of Premiership football in a new stadium, despite experiencing relegation in the last season that aimed for “Operation Championship.” Allen, for his part, spoke as early as January of his hopes to “smash” League One, and with the club on a stable financial footing, an exciting year is ahead at Priestfield.